Maintaining their previous poll positions of No. 16 nationally by the Associated Press and 17th in the USA Today/ESPN coaches poll, coach Rick Stansbury's 7-1 Bulldogs are riding a seven-game winning streak after claiming a 78-54 neutral-site victory over Georgia State on Dec. 18 at Jackson's Mississippi Coliseum. Entering this weekend's action leading the SEC in seven statistical categories, MSU has held each of its last seven opponents to 65 points or less.
Offensively, the Bulldogs currently pace the league in scoring margin (+22.4 ppg), while ranking second in scoring offense (81.9 ppg) and fifth in field-goal percentage (48.9%). Having held the opposition to collective 31.2 percent field-goal shooting over the last four games, State also tops the SEC in field-goal percentage defense (36.4%). In addition, the Bulldogs lead the way in rebounding margin (+14.4 rpg) around the league after amassing a commanding 52-21 advantage on the boards in their most recent victory over the Panthers of Georgia State.
Individually, junior all-America candidate Mario Austin ignites Mississippi State's potent offensive attack, having averaged 26.0 points and 9.5 rebounds per outing, along with shooting 60 percent from the field and 88 percent from the line, in the two games since being cleared to play by the NCAA on Dec. 10. Junior guard Timmy Bowers continues to supply the outside firepower for the Bulldogs by ranking among the SEC's Top-10 statistical leaders in five different categories. Along with leading the league in steals (2.9 spg), Bowers also stands fifth in scoring (17.2 ppg), fourth in made 3-pointers per game (2.4/gm), eighth in three-point field-goal percentage (45.2%), and 10th in overall field-goal percentage (53.5%). Senior forward Michal Ignerski rates as State's No. 3 scorer (10.8 ppg) and third-leading rebounder (6.3 rpg), while senior point guard Derrick Zimmerman averages 9.0 points and 4.0 rebounds per game, in addition to ranking among the SEC leaders in both assists (5.4 apg) and steals (2.0 spg).
Having advanced to last year's Final Four, the Oklahoma Sooners of the Big 12 Conference own a 6-1 overall record and are presently ranked fifth nationally in both polls. Guided by ninth-year head coach Kelvin Sampson, OU currently sports a six-game winning streak after initially falling, 68-62, to now-top ranked Alabama during the team's season opener at the Coaches vs. Cancer AT&T Wireless Classic back on Nov. 14 in New York City. Averaging 79.4 points per game as a team, as well as shooting 46.6 percent from the field and 76.6 percent from the line on the year, the Sooners are sparked by the senior backcourt tandem of Ebi Ere and Hollis Price, who average 19.9 and 17.4 points an outing, respectively. Ere also leads OU in rebounding (6.0 rpg), while Price, a preseason all-America candidate, also averages 3.3 assists per contest and shoots 92 percent from the free-throw line.
MSU owns a 2-0 all-time series lead over Oklahoma, having previously swept a home-and-home series from the Sooners during the 1995-96 (76-71 in Norman) and 1997-98 (67-65 in OT in Starkville) basketball campaigns. This year marks Mississippi State's seventh appearance overall in the Sugar Bowl Classic, having compiled an 8-4 composite record as well as capturing team titles during the 1982, 1961 and 1958 Sugar Bowl tournaments. Most recently in Sugar Bowl play in New Orleans, the 1987-88 Bulldogs earned third-place team honors by knocking off Virginia in the consolation contest after falling to DePaul.
Concluding non-conference action by playing three games in six days, the Bulldogs stay on the road to take on South Alabama next Monday night (Dec. 30) in Mobile before beginning the new calendar year in Birmingham by meeting the UAB Blazers on Thursday, Jan. 2.